UB students help to 'ReTree' the University Heights

Project now in third phase of planting 1,000 tress

While students and locals have historically clashed in the University Heights neighborhood over loud parties and drunken behavior, the two parties worked together this weekend to better curbside aesthetics in the Heights.

The third phase in ReTree the District, a project working to plant 1,000 trees in the University District, took place on Saturday. In addition to beautifying the area, one of the project’s main goals is to bring the people within it together, according to Darren Cotton, director of community development and planning at the University District Community Development Association.

“For us the most important part is building the sense of community – just the act of saying hello and meeting your neighbors sort of helps deal with a lot of the issues that the news so often covers with students,” Cotton said. “We wanna show people there’s a different side and that residents and students can work together towards improving their community.”

ReTree the District began with a few people planting 20-30 trees per year around the neighborhood with the help of the larger ReTree Western New York project. According to Cotton, it didn’t take long for participants to realize they wanted to do more.

He saw that there was a need in the neighborhood to plant more than just a couple trees here and there.

“We set out to plant 1,000 trees throughout the neighborhood and that’s what ReTree the District has become – a bunch of groups around the community coming together to achieve that goal,” Cotton said.

After the first two phases of ReTree the District in the fall of 2014 and the spring of 2015, the project had already reached the halfway point with 435 trees planted.

This success is due to the increase in volunteers. But the large jump in those who decided to participate didn’t come without a few logistical problems.

“When you have 200 to 300 people descending on one place at one time it can be a little chaotic … the first planting was kind of a nightmare because we had way too many people trying to do the same thing at once,” Cotton said.

Since the first phase, the process has gone progressively smoother. Cotton said the plantings give the project’s organizers the opportunity to figure out what went wrong and improve each time. The more volunteers that are trained and get used to how the process runs, the better, according to Cotton.

Jennifer Norton, a first-year graduate psychology student, has volunteered with the project since phase one. She doesn’t plan to stop participating until the project’s goal is met.

“I will keep volunteering until all the trees are planted,” Norton said. “People are so motivated and enthusiastic and you can see your trees growing. We can go see the trees we’ve already planted and how they’re doing … I love it.”

For Norton, the best part is seeing how happy the growing trees make everyone in the community.

“People will come out of the house telling us they really appreciate what we’re doing,” Norton said. “One time there was a woman who came out of her house and said how jealous her sister would be because she was getting a tree and we told her if her sister was home she could just sign a form and get one too. She was just so happy and it was really nice to see.”

Although this was his first time getting involved with ReTree the District, sophomore accounting major Chris Hoffman plans to continue volunteering as well.

Hoffman found out about the project through the Honors College as signed up to be a planting team captain on Saturday.

This involved extensive learning about how to plant the trees and leading a group of volunteers around the University District making sure they were successful with planting. Hoffman did just that, although he admits the responsibility made him a little nervous at first.

“My co-team leader didn’t show up so I was a little nervous but throughout the event I stepped up, did the best I could and my team actually did really well … I definitely plan on doing this again,” Hoffman said.

The more volunteers that get involved with ReTree the district, the quicker the project will reach its goal of planting 1,000 trees.

But the work will not be done once that goal is reached.

According to Cotton, the project is also working with the City of Buffalo to roll out a stewardship program to maintain the trees once they are all planted.

“The first couple of years are very important time in a tree’s life,” Cotton said. “So [this program] will basically train residents and students on how you actually take care of a tree and they will maintain them, so hopefully in 10 to 20 years [the University District] will have a beautiful tree canopy.”

Sophia McKeone is a staff writer and can be reached at features@ubspectrum.com